Friday, November 29, 2019

Dancing in Little Women, part 1: an Introduction

I have worked at Orchard House (home of author Louisa May Alcott, and the setting for Little Women) for almost half of my life, and spend most of my free time romping around in the 19th century. So as you might imagine, the 2017 BBC/PBS miniseries and the upcoming movie are a topic about which I have a lot of Feelings.

When the 2017 miniseries aired, there was one scene in particular that made me pause and re-wind during the first episode. That scene was the first party of the book, where Jo meets Laurie.

screenshot of the scene in Little Women on PBS, at about 16:17 in episode 1
The first dance in the scene is done to "Dodworth's Very Best Polka," a tune originally published c.1850 which the Commonwealth Vintage Dancers often perform to. Hooray!

Dancing was a frequent activity in the Alcott household, and we know from the family's letters (as well as letters written by their friends) that they loved to dance and attended dances often (although in every letter Louisa insists she doesn't know the steps, which I am greatly amused by). It seems only fitting that a few key scenes in Little Women take place at dances.

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Illustration by May Alcott, 1869 (from Houghton Library)
Given my own first-hand (or I suppose, first foot!) experience with mid-century social dance, I thought I would share a bit about what dancing would have really been like if you stepped into Little Women. I started writing a series of posts on the topic...then had to finish grad school and plan a wedding, so the posts have been sitting half-completed in my "drafts" folder for literal years. Sigh. But now the Gerwig-directed movie is coming out, and I thought I should use that as some motivation to actually get this going!

I'm going to approach this in three parts: this post is a brief introduction to mid-19th century dance terms and other basics that will come up throughout the other posts in the series; next are the dances mentioned by name in the text of the novel; then I'll dive into the dances the Alcotts and their friends mention in their letters; finally, I'll wrap up with everyone's favorite "after party" (the German or Cotillion), which is briefly mentioned in Little Women but has more significant plot relevance in Rose in Bloom.

Let's get started with a little bit of dancing, shall we?



A couple of important things:
1. I apologize in advance for the often not-great dance footage...I don't have a ton of videos available! We did a couple of big 1860s performances several years ago, and recently created a series of overviews so that's the footage I have to work from. (shameless plug: see dancing live in technicolor by coming to a ball sometime!)
2. All of the dance information I'll be discussing in these posts comes from primary sources. Alcott letters and novel texts are of course the big ones for my particular selections, but what about the dancing? Let's start there.

Dance Descriptions and Dance Manuals
In the mid-19th century, dance teachers commonly published manuals on ball etiquette, basic dance posture and steps, and instructions for popular dances of the day. These books were a resource for learning new dances, and updated editions were often released only a few years apart. For the dances I'll describe, I'm primarily using publications by Elias Howe. He was a New England dancing master, and his dance manuals Howe's complete ball-room handbook and American dancing master, and ball-room prompter were both published in Boston, MA in 1858 and 1862 respectively. Since the real-life Alcotts and fictional Marches were all in New England for much of their lives I think these are appropriate for our discussion. (Yes, I know we'll hit Europe in the latter half of the novel--I'll discuss that when we hit those chapters.)

Dancing was also sometimes discussed in the press, both in coverage of particular events or in sharing a particularly hot new trend. We'll touch on both of these sources.

To set the mood, here is Howe's introduction to his 1858 dance manual:
"There is no scene in which pleasure reigns more triumphantly than in the ball-room...The music rising with its voluptuous swell, the elegant attitudes and airy evolutions of graceful forms, the mirth in every step, unite to give to the spirits a buoyancy, to the heart a gayety, and to the passions a warmth, unequalled by any other species of amusement."

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applause at the end of a contra dance

Elements of mid-19th century Dancing

In the mid-19th century, there were three main types of dance setups*:
-contra (or country) dances: couples are arranged in rows (sometimes straight, sometimes in a circle) and dance with each other, progressing throughout the dance to new couples
-quadrilles: in America, these are usually done in squares of four couples (one on each side), and each part of the dance is repeated for the different people dancing
-round (or "couple") dances: one couple dances together around the ballroom; these are what most people now think of when they think of "ballroom dances"

The takeaway here is that there were many different kinds of configurations in which you might dance while attending a ball. And it was a lot to keep track of! So it's no wonder Louisa insists she never knows the steps.

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dancing a quadrille
Another important term to know is figure, which is the term for the different parts of a dance. Figures appear across many dances, which is kind of nice--if you know the "ladies chain" figure, you can get through it even if the dance you're doing is totally new. Since most contra dances and quadrilles are many of the same figures in different orders, it's much easier to pick up new dances than you might expect once you're comfortable with the bits...and also sometimes a lot harder to keep them all straight in your head.

The photo above is a figure from the Prince Imperial Quadrille--notice the square? Here's an example of a contra dance, called Soldiers Joy:



and a couple dance (this is a bit of polka from a choreography, which starts about 1:05 and ends at 1:30):



All of these styles would be on the same program during an evening, so you'd have a lot of options for different things to do. Here's an example dance list from Lincoln's inaugural ball in 1861, courtesy of dance historian Barbara Pugliese:
note: "lancers" is a particular genre of quadrille, with a really neat evolution...it's still done as a folk dance in several places today, including Denmark and the Caribbean. I actually attended a week-long dance program where the theme was lancers, just to give you a sense of the scope of stuff we could touch on. I'm only scratching the surface here!
So a mid-19th century person would have learned a basic vocabulary of dance elements, including figures (patterns that make up a dance), steps (how you move your feet), and variations (specific patterns of steps used in turning dances). Then they would have a repertoire of dances they knew completely (so the figures in order, etc.) that might change over time depending on trends and preferences among their social circle. Like spoken language a dance vocabulary can be combined in many ways, but if you've got the basics you can usually pick the rest up as you go. And like language, dancing has evolved over time--so while a lot of the terms may sound familiar to modern ballroom or contra dancers, the execution is different.

Some Other Notes
(or the things that didn't get their own section, but are worth noting)

  • Like modern social activities, dancing was enjoyed by people regardless of gender. While parts in a dance are defined as the "gentleman's part" and the "lady's part", there are many recorded instances of women dancing with women and men dancing with men. I will use the terms gentlemen and ladies throughout these posts to discuss the parts of a dance, but I wanted to acknowledge up front that even in the 1860s, that wasn't a hard-and-fast rule.
  • On a similar note, partners typically changed every dance, so you would dance with many people in a single evening. Howe states it is good manners for married couples to only dance together once or twice.
  • Dance cards or dance programs were popular for larger events, and often had spots to write in the name of your partner for that dance. Howe notes that it is impolite to ask someone to dance too far in advance--so the mad rush we might imagine to fill a dance card with partners right at the beginning of a ball is somewhat counter to the actual likely pace of the evening. 
  • Positions have changed over time, and the proper closed hold in the 1860s was low and rounded (different from modern ballroom form). 
  • The goal was (and still is!) to be sociable--smiling and enjoying the evening was more important than getting everything perfectly right. I think that's especially true for evenings described by Louisa, with good friends and cozy parlors full of lively people.

illustration from Howe, 1858
Alright, I think I'll leave it here. Do you feel prepared for the ballroom? Next time we're jumping in with the dances named in Little Women, so stay tuned!

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*I'm keeping things pretty simple, so pardon the generalizations.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Construction Notes:I

If you're just tuning in, I recently completed a new 1860s ballgown, made out of silk tartan I recovered by disassembling my 2012 silk tartan ballgown. The new version is a lot better! And not just because it has trim and closures.

look ma, no pins!

When I originally decided to embark on this project, I spent a long time looking for inspiration. My original plan was based on this extant dress, worn to a ball at Balmoral by the Princess of Wales in 1863:

Dress worn by the Princess of Wales to a ball at Balmoral, 1863
Note that at some point in the 1930s it was re-fashioned for wear at a different ball at Balmoral (worn that time by Queen Alexandra) so I am unsure how much of the skirt situation is original vs. from the re-make.
But I've always hated that underskirt...tiny ruffles on 1860s dresses are just not my taste. So I set out to look for something more to my liking. This actually turned out to be tricky, because it turns out tiny ruffles/fussy details under overskirts were pretty popular (at least, on the fashion plates I could find). But then I found this teal and white dress and I loved it:
1862 civil war fashion
looking at it now, I realize I reversed the bodice sections...ooops. oh well, too late now!
So that was my new target. As I was short on silk, I spent a lot of time fiddling before I actually cut anything out. The underskirt was a good place to start: I used a historical trick and made the bottom half silk, and the top half (hidden by the overskirt) cotton. I had to piece a small portion of the silk, but now it's in the back and not noticeable when I wear it.


And then came the bodice. As I mentioned, this was the most complex 1860s bodice I had ever attempted, as it required a careful assembly order to ensue that the right things overlapped with each other. My original plan was to construct the entire bodice out of a medium-weight cotton (that petticoat fabric I mentioned) and then apply all of the silk onto the cotton base. This...did not work. Like, not at all, it was a huge disaster. Luckily, plan B went a bit better!




Plan B was that I assembled the bodice in stages. Stage 1: I cut out the top third of my usual 1860s bodice pattern in red silk, and flat lined that to the cotton lining that I had taken apart from plan A. (All of the red silk was pinked, as I knew a lot of edges would be raw.) 
Stage 2: I cut the bottom two-thirds of my usual 1860s bodice pattern in tartan silk, and then created a zig-zag edge by scaling down the triangle I used to cut the zig-zag edge on the tartan overskirt (which I had done first--I used the zags I cut out for the sleeves and shoulder points). I then bound the zig-zag top edge of the tartan bodice pieces with cotton. 
Stage 3: I flat lined the tartan bodice pieces to the cotton bodice pieces over the silk, leaving the zig-zag edge loose.


I pull my basting stitches after assembly, so I like to baste in crazy neon colors. This project got lime green!
Stage 4: I assembled the bodice as usual.
Stage 5: I cut (and pieced where needed) wide bias strips of red silk, which I folded in half to create mock pleats. I pinned these in place on my dress form, then took them off and replaced and stitched down each level 1 at a time so that the edges are all hidden in the overlaps. The final row of pleating mostly ends inside the tartan layer, which hides the ends (and is why I left the zig-zags loose earlier on).


That was the majority of the weird bodice construction. The little points around the armscye and the larger ones on the sleeve are just bag lined with cotton to create finished edges, since you can't see much under the ribbon (well, you can't now. I hadn't gotten sleeve trim on by the ball). The bodice is boned along the back, seams, and darts, and closes in back with hooks and bars.

The one true moment of panic came when I realized that 6 days before the ball I had not begun to attach trim. There are about 15 yards of pleated velvet ribbon on this thing...next time I try to finish planning a wedding and sew a new ballgown at the same time, someone hit me upside the head so I can't. But minus the sleeve trim, which went on afterwards, I got it pretty much done!


There are a couple of bodice things I'd like to fix, and I really need a bigger hoop, but really--I'm so happy with this project. Which is good, because that metre of tartan silk I bought to boost my scraps? It was the end of the factory's supply. There's just not much demand for it anymore, which is sad...and also means next time I'd need to have it custom woven, and that is way outside my budget. So this will have to be my one, well-loved tartan dress.


Sunday, November 3, 2019

In which an old dress returns, much improved

My deep love of tartan fashion history began in college, when I spent a year at the University of Edinburgh (purportedly to do science, but in the end there was a lot of dancing, baking, tea, and tartan in there too). While I was there I picked up shifts as a nursery temp, and at the end of the year I was able to use some of my pence on a few metres of dress Stuart, the white-backed Stuart tartan colorway that I had fallen in love with while learning about Queen Victoria's own highland adventures.

Long story short, I wasn't a very good seamstress in college...and sewing in a dorm room didn't improve matters very much. It was a high-pressure project, what with it being a barely-enough-to-make-the-thing amount of very expensive silk. I was happy enough with it at the time, but it's always had issues and was never really a dress I loved the way I had wanted to when I was imagining it in my Edinburgh student flat. (If you're curious, I wore it in 2012 a few times that I blogged about.) So when my dance company started discussing the possibility of a Victoria and Albert 1860s dance weekend, I knew I wanted to re-make the dress into what I had originally hoped it would be.


While there is more trim to add (and some skirt trim to re-apply...a chair bit me at the ball!), I am finally in love with my tartan ballgown. This was the most complex bodice I have ever put together, but I'm really proud of where I've gotten in the last few years.

I am also immensely pleased with the re-make, re-use spirit of this dress. I would say in the end about 75% of the material I used was taken apart from a previous project: the silk tartan was of course my 2012 ballgown, and all of the cotton bits (lining, the top section and waistband of the underskirt) were once a petticoat I made, mis-pleated, and then never wore because it sat in a pile to someday be fixed. I did add 1 metre of new silk tartan (added as a panel to the skirt and also became the new bodice-the old bodice was cut up to make piping) and 2 yards (I think? I don't remember because I bought it several years ago...) of red silk for the underskirt and under-bodice.

To celebrate, here are some photos!


evidence that I do in fact dance in my ballgowns! this is from our performance of the Prince Imperial quadrille.



This ended up getting quite long, so...a whole lot of construction notes are coming up next. Stay tuned!